MELBOURNE, Australia - No.16 seed Serena Williams has picked up right where she left off at the Australian Open, coming smoothly through an intriguing duel against Eugenie Bouchard 6-2, 6-2 in one hour and 10 minutes.
Williams's last visit to Melbourne saw the American capture her 23rd Grand Slam title without dropping a set while eight weeks pregnant - thus sealing sole ownership of the Open Era record for major championships, having previously been tied on 22 with Stefanie Graf.
Today's win takes Williams to 18 consecutive sets won at the Australian Open, and is her third win in as many meetings against Bouchard following victories at Cincinnati in 2013 and the 2014 WTA Finals. The 37-year-old leapt out of the blocks with a dominant start while her opponent was slower to settle: back-to-back double faults put Bouchard down an immediate break, and a third paved the way to Williams seizing the double break and a 3-0 lead.
Thereafter, the Canadian managed to get something going - on return, at least. Taking advantage of Williams's subpar first serve percentage of 52% and bunches of errant forehands, Bouchard adopted an all-out aggressive strategy to break twice.
But faced with this improvement, Williams - as she has done so many times before - raised her own level as necessary. After each loss of her serve, the former World No.1 came out with focus and intent to break back, moving into a 4-1 lead with a spectacular forehand down the line and rushing Bouchard's groundstrokes to go up 5-2.
Williams had opened the set with four consecutive unreturned serves, and got three-quarters of the way there in closing it - but an emphatic smash sealed the deal in style anyway.
Having failed to hold at all in the first set, Bouchard again found herself under pressure to begin the second. But the World No.79 buckled down and came up with a couple of stunning winners - a redirected backhand down the line, hit from almost on her knees à la Agnieszka Radwanska, and a backhand angle at full stretch of such quality that Williams reacted with immediate applause - en route to fending off three break points to win her first service game.
The Wimbledon and US Open runner-up missed another break point chance as a backhand found the net in the third game, and when two more loose errors put her down 0-30 on serve danger briefly loomed. Very briefly: as in the first set, Williams's knack for responding to threats before they even have a chance to develop came through. Three unreturned serves and a booming backhand later, and it was Bouchard suddenly ruing lost opportunities.
As is so often the case, missed chances would reverberate in the subsequent game. Now it was the 2014 semifinalist who was error-strewn, and Williams finally took a break point with a scorching inside-out forehand.
Now in full flow, Williams accelerated towards the finish line as Bouchard faded. Consecutive crosscourt return winners, one off each wing, set her up for a double break, and a fourth double fault from the former World No.5 sealed it.
Capturing 16 of the match's last 20 points, Williams finished with a flourish: a swashbuckling drive volley winner, her 20th of the day. Next up in the third round is another must-watch battle against fast-rising 18-year-old Dayana Yastremska, who has been turning heads with her own power and shotmaking this week - both of which were on display in her 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 upset of No.23 seed Carla Suárez Navarro.